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Which Americans Live Longest? Education Matters More Now Than Race

college man with backpack

MONDAY, March 8, 2021 (HealthDay News) -- A four-year college degree is becoming the key to living a longer life in the United States, a new study argues. In fact, education appears to be a more potent factor in determining lifespan now than race, researchers say.

In the study, white and Black people who earned a bachelor's degree experienced an overall increase in their average adult life expectancy between 2010 and 2018.

On the other hand, people without a college degree tended to have fewer expected years left to them.

This "education gap" in life expectancy more than doubled between 1990 and 2018 for both Black and white Americans --- at the same time that race-based differences in life expectancy decreased by 70%, researchers said.

About one-third of Americans have a four-year college degree, and they are living longer and more prosperous lives while the rest face rising death rates and declining prospects, said researcher Angus Deaton, a professor at the University of Southern California's Center for Health Policy and Economics.

"The importance of having a BA has been increasing, while the importance of the color of your skin seems to be diminishing," Deaton said. "The gap between Blacks and whites is narrowing, and the gaps between people who do and do not have a four-year college degree are widening."

Deaton places the blame for the education gap on diminishing economic opportunities afforded to people who don't go to college.

Wages for people without a BA continue to decline, and automation and globalization have narrowed their career prospects, Deaton said. They also are more vulnerable to suffering a death of despair, either by suicide, drug overdose or addiction-related illness.

"The problem here is not so much that everybody doesn't have a BA," Deaton said. "There are lots of people who don't want to have a four-year college degree, and shouldn't. What we really need to do is make good jobs for people who don't have a BA."

Without a four-year college diploma, it is increasingly difficult to build a meaningful and successful life in the United States, added Deaton, a Nobel Prize-winning economist who retired after 33 years at Princeton University.

For this study, Deaton and his colleagues looked at what they refer to as adult life expectancy, or the life expectancy of people between ages 25 and 75. They combined U.S. federal death certificate data with population survey results to calculate mortality rates.

They found that Black people with a BA tended to have 3.6 more expected years of life in 2018 than those without, compared with 1.4 years in 1990.

A similar advantage held for white people with a college degree. They had 3.5 more expected years of life in 2018 than those who don't hold a degree. In 1990, the difference was 1.6 years.

The findings were published March 8 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Margaret Weden, acting director of the RAND Population Research Center, said the narrowing of the racial gap in life expectancy has been observed in prior studies.

"It suggested to me a real impact of the civil rights movement," Weden said. "In these findings, you see a dramatic uptick for Blacks regardless of education."

However, the data set used by Deaton to make the education-based observation "has been critiqued pretty robustly in the demographic literature" because it combines information from two different sources that don't completely jibe, Weden said.

The COVID-19 pandemic likely has shaken up these observations, particularly the narrowing of the racial gap in life expectancy, said Krutika Amin, associate director of the Kaiser Family Foundation Program on the ACA (Affordable Care Act).

COVID has hit U.S. racial and ethnic groups particularly hard, and those deaths are not reflected in this data, Amin said.

On the other hand, the pandemic might have fueled a further increase in the education gap, given that people without a college degree tend to work front-line jobs that carry increased risk of exposure to the coronavirus, Amin said.

"Folks who had higher education were able to work from home, whereas other folks didn't have that advantage," Amin said, adding that college-educated people might also have more time to take care of their personal health.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about life expectancy.

SOURCES: Angus Deaton, PhD, professor, University of Southern California Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics; Margaret Weden, PhD, acting director, RAND Population Research Center; Krutika Amin, PhD, associate director, Kaiser Family Foundation Program on the ACA; Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, March 8, 2021

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